The Nationals will be signing players today. A bunch of them, as a matter of fact.
Not big-league players. But players they certainly hope will become big leaguers someday once they join the organization from Latin America and work their way up the depth chart.
It’s the start of the 2024 international signing period across Major League Baseball, and this one will be notable for the Nationals because for the first time in a long time, there’s a new person in charge of the process.
Johnny DiPuglia, the franchise’s lead international scout since 2009, resigned in September and recently was hired by the Royals as a special assistant. Taking his place is Fausto Severino, who has worked for the Nats just as long but is only now getting his first opportunity to lead the department after serving as DiPuglia’s right-hand man for years.
Severino joined the Nationals in 2009 as the administrator of their Dominican academy, which was in a state of chaos after it was discovered an alleged top prospect falsified his name (Esmailyn Gonzalez) and age in order to secure a then-record $1.6 million signing bonus. The investigation into that case led to the downfalls of former general manager Jim Bowden and his top Latin American lieutenant, Jose Rijo.
Enter DiPuglia, Severino and others, who were tasked by then-team president Stan Kasten and new GM Mike Rizzo with completely remaking the club’s Latin American program into one that would be successful and respected throughout the industry.
Over the years, as Severino worked his way up from director of the Dominican Summer League academy to Latin American crosschecker to director of Latin American scouting, the Nationals doled out millions of dollars to teenage prospects from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and other nations.
They enjoyed some success stories, most notably Juan Soto. They endured through some failures, notably Yasel Antuna. They saw several homegrown international signees reach the big leagues (Victor Robles, Luis García, Reynaldo López, Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino, Wander Suero, Joan Adon). And they are still waiting to see how several more recent signees’ careers pan out (Andry Lara, Jeremy De La Rosa, Armando Cruz, Cristhian Vaquero).
The Nationals weren’t afraid to spend big money on top Latin American prospects under DiPuglia, including the $3.9 million bonus they gave Cruz in 2021 and the $4.925 million they gave Vaquero in 2022.
It remains to be seen how they will utilize the $5.284 million pool allotted to them this year, whether they give the majority of that to one elite prospect or spread the money around among a number of potentially intriguing players.
It’s one of the hardest tasks in sports, deciding which players who are only turning 17 this year are worthy of seven-figure bonuses, which ones are worthy of six-figure bonuses and which ones are worthy of five-figure bonuses.
It’ll be years before we know if the Nats spent wisely on this year’s class. We still don’t know if they spent wisely on their last three or four classes, given how long it takes for players that young to make their way up through the minor leagues.
We do know someone new is in charge of the process beginning this year. And though he has been involved in the process for years, there’s a whole different level of pressure applied to the person who has the final say on these matters.
UPDATE: The Nationals announced the signings of 20 players from Latin America today, two of those players rated among the top 20 international prospects in the sport by Baseball America.
Victor Hurtado, a 6-foot-3 outfielder from the Dominican Republic headlines the class as the No. 7 ranked international prospect. The Nats gave the 16-year-old a $2.8 million signing bonus.
"He's a kid that, as soon as we saw him, we fell in love with," Severino said. "He did everything with ease. As far as upside, he's someone that we're projecting to hit in the middle of the lineup when it's all said and done, and someone who can actually play the field. A kid that works very hard, unbelievable makeup and flair. He's kid that carries himself with a lot of confidence, and we like that a lot about him."
Angel Feliz, a 6-foot-2 shortstop from the Dominican Republic is the other ranked player, checking in at No. 16. He received a $1.7 million bonus.
"He's got a very advanced approach at the plate, hitting ability, but he's also got the ability to hit for power," Severino said. "And for being a big kid, he can really play shortstop. At the beginning, we were kind of (wondering) if he's going to play there, or is he going to play third base? But the more I saw him, he made all the plays - routine and difficult plays. He's got a strong arm. He's somebody that's a leader, that's got unbelievable makeup also."
The remaining 18 players signed today include 10 others from the Dominican (seven right-handed pitchers, a catcher, a third baseman and an outfielder), seven from Venezuela (two right-handers, one lefty, two infielders, one catcher and one outfielder), plus the first Haitian-born player to sign with the Nationals (17-year-old outfielder Arthur Paul, who trained in the Dominican and was noticed by scouts).
Severino noted that the large signing class offers the organization many opportunities for players to ascend the ladder and reach the big leagues while still including two highly rated prospects in Hurtado and Feliz.
"You have a different plan of attack for each year," Severino said. "This year, we got Hurtado and Feliz, and as time went on and we could attack some of those other players, a lot of the kids in this market are very young, and you end up getting a lot of late bloomers, kids that come out later that we really liked and pursued them. That's our mentality: Try to get the best players. And we had the budget for it, so we went and got some guys aside from those two prospects."